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Knights Ferry SHP
California's Longest Covered Bridge

Knights Ferry Covered Bridge SHP

"We are informed by a gentleman who arrived last evening from Stockton that the whole town of Knights Ferry has been swept away...  ...mills and everything clean swept off."  -The Daily Alta, January 14, 1842

The brochure reads:

The Knights Ferry covered bridge that now stands across Stanislaus River was not the first bridge or crossing constructed there.  Originally, the crossing had been a ferry built from an old whaling vessel by Dr. William Knight, and his partner James Vantine in 1848.  The ferry was said to have built to increase the business at their trading post, yet toll charges could run as high as $200 for a signal crossing.  By the end of 1849, however, Dr. Knight had been shot and killed in an argument, and a new partnership between John Dent and Vantine was established.

Dent, Valentine and Company replaced the old whaling boat ferry with a modern style ferry, and were issued a San Joaquin ferry permit for $300. 

As businessmen, they reduced the toll charge to two dollars, hoping that the increased travel on the ferry would improve the patronage at newly built restaurant and boarding house at Knights Ferry. 

Captain Ulysses S. Grant, while visiting his brothers-in-law, earned from "fifty to one hundred dollars per day".  (It was during one of his visits that he was purported to have drawn the plans for the first bridge at the present site.)

 


The Mill Office, circa 1857, was built by David Locke.  After the mill was converted to hydroelectric, Tom Prowse, the plant manager lived here until 1927.  In 1939, it was purchased and used as a vacation home until the 1970's.

In 1852, Vantine sold his holding to the Dents and moved back East.  Profiting from the increase in business fro the growing population and prosperity in the area, the Dents agreed to finance the construction of David Locke's millworks.  With help from his brother Elbridge, David Locke completed the sawmill in 1854.  By mid-January of the following year, the Lockes opened their highly profitable grist mill (the remains of the building still stand next to the bridge). 

To help ensure the success of the mill, the Lockes needed to guarantee the flow of commerce over the Stockton-Sonora Road, and they accomplished this by purchasing the ferry from the Dents for $26,000 on the first of November, 1865.  The purchase price included the timber that had been cut previously for a bridge that Dent and Vantine had been planning to build.

Although there was some discussion between Locke and the town's business community on where the location should be, Locke won out.  In early 1857, construction began at the site of the current bridge, next to the mill.

Upon completion of the bridge, the ferry system was dismantled, and it was hoped that the new open-truss bridge would curtail the effects of the winter flooding on the transportation, which had plagued ferries.  Up until the 1861-62 winter, the uncovered bridge had served well, and Knights Ferry's population had grown continuously.  As the community prospered, Locke entered into a partnership with other bridge and ferry owners, forming the Stanislaus Bridge and Ferry Company.  He sold the bridge to the company in July 1858, but remained in authority of the Knights Ferry Bridge.

As warm unseasonable rain swept across the Sierra Nevada in early 1862, the previous month's heavy snows melted.  As the icy water from the Sierra Nevada joined with the Stanislaus, the height of the river began rising three to four feet per hour, peaking at a remarkable 35 feet above low water mark.  As sweeping water battered the homes and most of the businesses in Knights Ferry, the bridge held fast.


What's left of the ruins- 
Notice how the water was channeled to the mill.

However, the fate of the bridge had been sealed not form collapse, but from collision.  The bridge at Two-Mile Bar, only a short distance up river, had been torn from its foundation.  Pushed by the raging floodwater, it crashed into the Knights Ferry Bridge, crushing the truss supports and knocking it from its rock foundation.  The bridge, the mill and the town lay in ruin.

Loss of the bridge was set at $20,000.  Undaunted, the Stanislaus Bridge and Ferry Company set to work on a new bridge, a covered  bridge that would set eight feet higher than its predecessor above the fiery river.  Within the month as the floodwater subsided, the retired ferry was forced back into service, along with a new foot bridge.  In March, actual construction of the covered bridge began, and fifteen months later, it would open to traffic.

A stonemasons and metalsmiths were called into action, Locke himself collected the necessary timber to be used for the truss structures.  Fir, pine, and oak woods were all utilized, with linseed oil added for preservation and lubrication.  Hundreds of other laborers converged on the area, as construction in and around the town proceeded.  By May, 1864, the craftsmen had completed their work on a bridge that had been designed for low maintenance, large loads, and a long lifespan.

Along with the new bridge, came new toll rates.  The county, acting on the request from the owners, set new charges.  Tolls ranged from two cents for hogs or sheep, to five dollars for horse and mule teams.  Rates were even set for circus animals which crossed the Stanislaus in pursuit of a paying audience.  Dromedaries (camels) were two dollars, with all other undomesticated beasts set at a dollar.  (Elephants were the exception; they carried a three dollar toll charge.)

In 1869, Locke sold the controlling interest in the bridge to Thomas Roberts, a prominent citizen of Knights Ferry.  For the next few years, the bridge was profitable enterprise, yet the popularity of the crossing would change as the neighboring communities of Modesto and Oakdale grew.  In 1871, the center of government for Stanislaus County relocated, moving from Knights Ferry to Modesto.

The Stockton-Visalia Railroad also added to the decline of Knights Ferry.  The railroad had opted to the build the stop at Oakdale, bypassing Knights Ferry.  As the center of transportation and commerce shifted, the flour mill (bought by David Tullock in 1859) was sold, and a small room was added to house a single turbo generator.  This generator was powered by water brought down the hill in a penstock leading out of the old San Joaquin Ditch.  The company, declining in importance as a producer of lour, was renamed the Stanislaus Water and Power Company on October 26, 1897.  The power plant stayed in operation until 1920 when the new Melones Powerhouse began operations.

As the economic and political changes compiled, travel over the bridge slowed, and the public vocalized the need for a free bridge crossing.  On November 12, 1884, the county purchased the bridge from Edwards for $7000.  They had also agreed to pay lost toll charges of $126.83 from tolls not collected while the agreement was finalized.

Few modifications have been made to the bridge since it was built in 1863.  The wooden roof was replaced with tin shortly after the county purchased the bridge in 1884.  In 1918, the deck was repaired, and the sand that protected the planking was eventually replaced by asphalt.

New "felloe guards" were added to keep the wagon and auto traffic from hitting the trusses as they passed one another.  In 1970, the chain-like fence was added to keep individuals from knocking the wooden sidings out and diving from the bridge.

With the load capacity of the bridge rated at 5 tons, the large trucks and autos stained the aging span, and in 1981, county engineers spotted cracks in the support structures.  The bridge was finally closed to vehicular traffic on the 2nd of June, 1981.

The Sacramento District Corps of Engineers received title to the Knights Ferry covered bridge on April 18, 1985.  In addition to safeguarding the bridge under the National Historic Preservation Act, the Corps of Engineers operates and managed nine recreation areas along a 59-mile stretch of the Stanislaus River.

Visitors can take a short walk from the Knights Ferry Information Center past the restored mill and mill office to the bridge, its length and dimension giving rise to the historic nature of the landmark.  Massive beams loom overhead, while thousands of inch-thick planks lie on their side to form to the deck, having allowed over 100 years of history to pass through.

Nearby Motorcycle Roads:

Continue eastward on Highway 108-Sonora Pass- to Railtown 1897 State Historic Park and a multitude of roads such as Big Hill Road, or on to Tuolumne's Cottonwood RoadHighway 120 - Tioga Pass will take you past Cherry Lake Road into Yosemite National Park.

North of here is Highway 4- Ebbets Pass - along with one of my favorites- Pool Station Road.

Southward will take you outside North Fork to Mammoth Pool Road - The Sierra Vista Scenic Byway.

Lodging & Resources

Knights Ferry Covered Bridge
18020 Sonora Road 
Knights Ferry, CA95361 
209/881-3517

 

Knights Ferry Resort
21 Campground Sites
209-881-3349

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